Arizona’s 54th Legislative Session Ends: The Good, the Bad & the Ugly

Rep. Pam Powers Hannley

Usually, sine die is an orderly but sometimes drama-filled end to the Legislative session. Historically, the Arizona House and the Senate vote to sine die (end the session) on the same night and often under the cloak of darkness.

The second session of the 54th Legislature was… different… even before the novel Coronavirus hit the world. Although Democrats made up 48 percent of the House members in the 54th Legislature, the Republican leadership refused to work with Democrats and refused to put any bills up for a vote unless all 31 of their members were in their chairs and ready to vote in lock step with their party. The Republican leadership’s attempts to tightly control the action resulted in chaotic schedules (when all Republicans were present), several closed-door Republican caucus meetings, and long stretches of inaction because one or more R votes were missing. This is no way to run a government.

The Ugly
The Arizona House of Representatives was adjourned from March 23, 2020 to May 19, 2020, due to the COVID19 pandemic. Some of us wanted to sine die on March 23 and go back into for special session(s) focused on COVID19 public health and economic issues, later when we know the economics of our situation better. Others– mostly Republicans– wanted to stay in session and pause the action by adjourning because they had hopes that their bills would still pass during this session.

Speaker of the House Rusty Bowers
Speaker of the House Rusty Bowers explains his “yes” vote for SB1274, a bill that waters down several boards and commissions, most notably the board that oversees architects and engineers. Deregulation of engineering? What could go wrong? (Sarcasm, obviously.)

The Senate voted to sine die on May 8, 2020, which left the Legislature in limbo as the House Republicans wrangled with each other. The House was being held hostage by a handful of people who were still clinging to their bad bills. Three quarters of the Legislature waited for them to make a decision. Again, this is no way to run a government.

During the week of May 19, the House went back into session to hear some Senate bills, the infamous business liability bill (HB2912), and and a spending bill for federal childcare subsidies (HB2913). We had three days of committee hearings, debates, and votes on about 30 bills– mostly non-emergency bills that had nothing to do with COVID19. House rules and committees were waived to get HB2912 and HB2913 to the floor for votes ASAP. These bills are complex and deserve a full hearing in committees, which can happen during special session.

The theory was that by passing some of the Senate bills, the Senators would be more likely to pass some House bills, including the two late arrivals, before they sine die again. The two chambers have to sine die within three days of each other, and the window of sine die opportunity from the Senate’s previous vote on May 8 had lapsed. The House voted to sine die on Thursday, May 21.

In a dramatic end to a weird session, the Senate came back to hear a short list of “non-controversial” House bills and to sine die (again) on May 26. Within seconds of the gavel, Democratic Senator Rebecca Rios called the previous question, which would have been related to a matter from the last time they were on the floor, before adjournment. I think everyone expected the Dems to do this sine die at some point that day but not so soon. (After all, Democrats tried the same tactic in the House the previous week.) Three moderate Republicans Senators Kate Brophy McGee, Paul Boyer and Heather Carter voted with the Democrats to pass the sine die motion. (Carter and her seatmate former Senator now Rep. Nancy Barto are in a heated primary battle for Carter’s Senate seat. Barto held committee hearings during the week of May 19. Carter’s stance on sine die is a clear distinction between the two. That is a race to watch, along with the KBM rematch with Democrat Christine Marsh.)

After a few procedural votes, the Senate drama and the session were over in three minutes. (You can watch it here.)

Republicans in masks
There was a lot of face mask drama in the House Republican Caucus. Here in their caucus meeting, everyone is wearing a mask and social distancing, with some people joining from their offices. On the Floor of the House, the entire Democratic Caucus and roughly 80% of the staff wore masks for the entire three days, but the majority of Republicans didn’t wear masks on the Floor. Some took masks off to make speeches and put them back on after the camera moved on.

The Good
The most exciting thing about this abrupt end to the Legislative session is that only 58 bills have been signed into law so far in 2020. THAT is what I call “small government”. Contrast this to the 300+ bills primarily Republican bills that the Legislature passes each year. Hundreds of horrible bills died on May 26 with that sine die vote, for example: the ~18 tax giveaways; the ~20 voter suppression bills; the reefer madness ballot referral; the attacks on Clean Elections, the Citizens Initiative and Independent Redistricting Commission; remaking the governmentvanity license plates to funnel money to special interest groups; carve outs for specific businesses, and — who could forget– the build your own Border Wall bill. The people of Arizona didn’t ask for or need any of those bills. Yes, the party of “small government” passes hundreds of unnecessary bills each year.

The House passed about 30 non-emergency Senate bills during the week of May 19; they will go to the governor. Will he waste his time signing non-emergency bills that that have nothing to do with the pandemic– like bills that water down professional boards and commissions or insurance industry bills about sending email to customers or marketing life insurance? Seriously? Republicans are worried about deregulation when the state’s unemployment insurance system barely works and landlords are poised to evict hundreds of people in Pima County alone? The state government needs to right its priorities.

The Bad
As of this writing, Governor Doug Ducey has spent a fraction of the $105 million that the Legislature allocated for the COVID19 response. The Democrats thought he needed a road map for spending the relief money; now that is obvious. Rural counties are complaining about Ducey’s slow distribution of the federal funds which are earmarked for them but have to flow through him.

I am calling for a nonpartisan public health approach to the COVID19 pandemic when we go into special session. Democrats and Republicans worked with the governor’s office to tackle the opioid epidemic. The House Democratic Caucus has the Legislature’s only four health professions– Drs. Randy Friese and Amish Shah and two of us with Masters in Public Health, Rep. Alma Hernandez and me. We would be honored to share our medical and public health expertise on a COVID19 planning team.

Legislative Democrats pushed for a comprehensive and detailed response to COVID19 back in March. We are developing our economic and public health ideas for one or more special sessions now. New state financial outlook numbers will come out in June. That will give us a better idea where the state stands.

Some Legislators are already talking about budget cuts and austerity– which is what the Republican majority gave us after the Wall Street crash. Many programs that benefit the people of Arizona were never fully restored after those cuts– most notably TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), unemployment, childcare subsidies, K-12 education, community colleges, and the universities. I know people who haven’t recovered from the Wall Street crash and are now faced with financial hardship from the COVID19 pandemic. I know people who lost their houses in the housing collapse and have not recovered financially. I know college-educated Millennial who have been eking out a living in the gig economy, which has now collapsed.

Austerity is a lie. Billions of tax dollars are tied up in corporate tax breaks. Progressives are calling for an end to corporate tax giveaways and the elimination of some of those billions of tax giveaways that are currently on the books. Before we cut services for the people, we should cut tax breaks for Corporate America. It’s time to end Corporate Welfare, and take care of the people of Arizona.

Here are a few recent updates from my blog…

Capital Updates During Sine Die Drama

May 11: #AZ Senate Votes to End Session. What about the House? (video)

May 14: #AZHouse HHS Committee to Hear Experts on Opening Economy on May 14 (video)

May 16:  #COVID19: Should Grandma ‘Take One for the Team’? (video)

May 19: Arizona House Resumes 54th Session on May 19. Now What?

May 20: #AZ House Passes Insurance Bills, Ignores Calls for #COVID19 Special Session (video)

May 21: #AZ House Republicans Continue to Hear Pet Bills & Ignore #COVID19 (video)

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